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Virality in the Internet Age

Viralidad en la era de Internet 1005x523

The Internet—and everything it entails—has changed how the advertising industry works. Nowadays, a major objective for many brands is to ‘go viral’. Although there is no magic recipe, certain elements—including context and type of content—can bring organizations closer to this goal. The idea is to make your message jump from network to network and be shared by as many people as possible.

Viral success is surrounded by a certain aura of uncertainty. However, messages that spread easily always incorporate two key elements. The first is the structure of the Internet—a technology that allows videos and texts to be shared easily. People have been sharing stories since the dawn of humankind, and they continue to do so today. The second element has to do with the content itself: to go viral, it must be unusual and surprising. In a word… DISRUPTIVE.

The Internet is filled with unexceptional content, but occasionally an item manages to reach a mass audience. Why is this? What makes the difference? Why does some content go viral? It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a single reason: viral content may appeal to our emotions, it may be fun and original, or it may contain never-before-seen images or ideas. Countless possibilities are thrown into the mix.

The most critical element of any viral content is that it must surprise and disrupt current forms of communication. This means that it should combine elements of familiarity but do it in a surprising and novel way.

The critical element for any brand in creating their content is to provide the viewer with some form of Social Currency. This means that the content has to provide the viewer with some sense of being cool, remarkable, innovative or different in sharing the item. They have to feel that they somehow benefit in the eyes of their own network and therefore feel motivated to spend their own Social Currency (the attention of their audience) because they will have a net gain of Social Currency that they earn in the exchange.

Context is another element to consider. When a video is particularly opportune, the gateway to virality is wide open. It is essential to refer or somehow relate to current events. On the Internet, it’s practically irrelevant to talk about something that occurred three years ago unless it happens to be back in the news again for some reason. The idea is to capture the here and now with messages designed to go viral.

These clues can put you on the path towards developing good content, but the most important ingredient—jumping from network to network—is still missing. Nothing is intrinsically popular; content becomes popular when people share it in the right places and start talking about it en masse. It goes viral when it starts jumping from one network to another. Distribution is fundamental. It doesn’t matter if you’re developing your content in the middle of nowhere: the important thing is how quickly it spreads and how far it goes.

Nothing is intrinsically popular; content becomes popular when people share it in the right places and start talking about it en masse. It goes viral when it starts jumping from one network to another.

Don’t aim for “likes”

It is fundamental to distinguish between the number of “likes” a post gets and the number of times it is shared. Sharing is the key to a message’s scalability. Think about what happens during a virus outbreak: travel restrictions may be introduced to minimize the number of people affected. Measures of this sort can prevent an infection from jumping from one place to another. The same is true of viral content, except it works the other way around. The objective is to get it to jump from network to network, inundating every environment it finds.

When it comes to advertising, the main difference between the digital environment and traditional media is repetition. It used to be that you chose your target audience and tried to figure out how to reach it. Channel and content were clearly differentiated. Today, everything is social. Users themselves are the ones who decide what to share, how to share it, and what content they are interested in. The users have become the gatekeepers—they decide what gets through and what doesn’t. That’s why it’s difficult to guarantee a return on investment when designing, for example, a campaign on Facebook.

It’s not easy to go viral, but there are various elements that can help you develop the right approach. You can observe viral events and try to ascertain their characteristics. Predicting them in advance is like trying to predict earthquakes: we know they will happen, we know the factors that cause them, we know the likelihood that they will occur in one place or another… But can we predict them with total accuracy? Not yet. The same is true of virality. But the challenge of creating viral content for our clients can’t wait.


Brian Hallett, Professor in the Master in Visual and Digital Media at the IE School of Human Sciences and Technology, and photographer, director and creator of the Big Fish Studio.

© IE Insights.

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